James Altucher: Kevin Kelly – a thousand true fans

Podcast notes: Kevin Kelly – A Thousand True Fans

This podcast (iTunes – 1h 11m) is available at The James Altucher Show. James Altucher and Kevin Kelly – A Thousand True Fans (27 Feb 2015)

This was a great session, Kevin Kelly is full of ideas and he and James really hit it off. Kevin has been many things, including the editor of Wired and the Whole Earth Review, a driving force behind the Cool Tools site and as a drop-out spent a lot of time in Asia travelling. To say he’s a ‘techno-guru’ or ‘editor’ or ‘evangelist’ is very limiting, so check out his own ‘about-me’ for the full story.

The discussion was really wide-ranging, so I’ve just picked up on a few things that were said that really interested me. For the full story, listen to the podcast – it’s really worth it…

A Thousand True Fans

He’s well known for the phrase “A Thousand True Fans“, the idea being that if you have 1000 people who will absorb all your work (be it music, writing, comic books, films, seminars, software or indeed anything tangible or intangible), and if they spend about $100/year on your products, then you have a cohort of followers who then allow you to have a reasonable income, i.e. you have a business.

This can happen because the ‘gatekeepers’ are no longer as powerful as they were so therefore you don’t have to ask permission to start or create something (it’s easy to self publish on Amazon or iBooks for example). This means that anyone can make content, and it also means everyone can make content – so how do you keep up with all of this content. James gives an idea of how things have scaled in terms of books being published; 500,000 ISBNs were issued in 2009 and 15,000,000 ISBNs in 2014. There was talk of 6 billion songs a year being released in the late 2020’s if current trends continued. The argument put forward is that this does mean there is a role for intermediates to in some way curate or guide people through the huge number of options that people have. If you want an audience for your creation, you need to make something of value – creating something from nothing that people find valuable to them.

Kevin then says that he thinks the reason he has a contract from Penguin for a new book is that he has his ‘fans’ ready to consume the book and in effect he is bringing his own audience with him – book publishers don’t have an audience. I know some publishers who would definitely agree with this.

I wondered if these fans could be described as the “sneezers” that Seth Godin talks of – people who are early adopters of a product or service and who then pass on that enthusiasm to others. If that were the case I think the thousand true fans would rapidly grow to the hundreds of thousands, and a reasonable income becomes substantial wealth…

But how do you get “a thousand true fans”? – essentially by providing them with a service or experience that they value.

Kevin also talked about the early days connecting to bulletin boards that could handle maybe 100 people at a time (this was when each connection to the board was a real modem – hence the limit on the number of users – and the output was green flickering text), but even then the potential of these machines that were connecting people was clear to see to him.

My first encounter with online services was with the Prestel system back from about 1980 onwards and I can remember putting the phone handset into the acoustic coupler and warning everyone in the house to not make phone calls – sometimes they even listened.

But I missed the 90’s internet boom?

That then led onto some comments about the ‘good old days’ when you could obtain domain names for free, but Kevin’s comment here is that you shouldn’t worry about missing the boat – people will be saying that about the present day in 30 years time. The next biggest invention of the next 25 years hasn’t been invented yet. That’s your cue…

AI is anything that doesn’t work

Kevin is very bullish on AI. The idea here is that you will be able to take any service ‘X’ and add AI to it, buying AI in the same way as Amazon Web Services work today. This then cognifies the service and makes it more useful to people. An analogy was made with electrifying services (vacuum cleaners became electric vacuum cleaners, motors became electrified and so on).

One terrific quote from Kevin:

Kevin: “AI is anything that doesn’t work. As soon as some AI aspect is working, we stop calling it AI, we call it machine learning”

Once I heard this quote, I tried to think of an example of something that is working that is still called AI – couldn’t do it; self-driving cars, facial recognition, fast-trading software, robot vision, computer chess – none of it is really called AI any more.

Technology creates problems, better technology solves them

James asked about tipping points related to AI, which led to an interesting dialog;

Kevin: Most of the problems we have on the planet today are from our previous technology and most problems that will occur in the future will be from technologies we will create.

Kevin’s opinion is that the answer to a bad technology is not no technology, but better technology. The analogy with technology is thinking made concrete: “if I were to spout out bad ideas, you wouldn’t say ‘hey, think less’, the proper response to a bad idea is always a better idea, not less thinking”.

This makes perfect sense to me, and when you realise how many technologies are reaching the ‘knee’ of the exponential growth curve (the subject of a later post), it’s clear things are going to get much better.

Technology never goes extinct

This was a surprise to me, apparently Kevin has done research that shows that all technologies that were made in the past are still being made today. Or at least whenever (who did the asking?) picked any technology, he could point out where it was still being made somewhere on the planet; core memories (as used in Apollo) in Bulgaria, punched cards in the US and apparently more people are knapping now than ever before. I find it very hard to believe this is the case for all technologies, but apparently it’s true.

Graphic Novel – Silver Cord

Towards the end of the podcast Kevin talks about his new 464-page graphic novel “The Silver Cord” – a fan-financed book which blends millions of species of angels, sentient robots and huge quantities of artwork. I’ve not read it, but James said he was blown away by it, so there’s a recommendation.

Finishing up

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, and want to capture the ones that influence me. The world is changing incredibly quickly now and the rate of that change is increasing – so we’re accelerating towards something – an attractor, the singularity, armageddon? Who knows, but I do know that a lot of things people have considered immutable have changed; a job for life, automation won’t effect me, my pension is safe, a house is a safe investment, a university education will set me up for life – all these ‘facts’ have been shown to be anything but. Things are going to get very interesting from here on in. I’m actually very optimistic about where things are going to go though.

Have you seen Futurama? The first episode when Fry is defrosted in the year 3000? There’s a guy there that says (in a great booming, melodramatic voice) “Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!”. Yup – that.